An Election-Oriented Budget: WATCH OUT!

George C. Brathwaite

Next week bears an awful foreboding for Barbadians from all walks of life and all sectors contributing to the national economy. There is further predictable gloom on the economic horizon; this fact is based upon two significant things. For starters, the global economy remains as volatile and uncertain as it has been since 2007; the UK, USA, and Europe as whole are fighting stubbornly to bring about some stability in the context that their economies are still courting a double-dip recession, unable to kick-start employment, and are battling a series of corruption and other forms infelicitous charges regarding the public purse.

The second factor speaks to the lack or insufficiency of innovative economic mechanisms by government to deal with the shocks and turbulence impacting on Barbados given its peculiarities of a very low manufacturing base, a weak export climate, a restricted services economy, a fixed exchange rate regime, and an ever increasing import bill that far surpasses the capacity of the country’s production and consumption. Together these things make the job of Minister of Finance a perplexing one especially considering his ‘greenness’ to the profession notwithstanding his enthusiasm and/or other attributes.

From recent memory, perhaps the only Barbadian that I may say who would cherish and not envy the current Minister’s position is the Leader of the Opposition despite his acknowledgement of the tremendous task and acumen that is necessarily required for a return of Barbados to relative economic success. In my opinion, even with Mr. Arthur the difficulties would not disappear despite he may offer some confidence in the economy and inspire the local private sector based upon his track record. This is likely to be the case since in all fairness to potential leaders and economists, very few if any public statements made in the past year have suggested new economic paths for the country. Yet there is little dispute about the country’s economic accomplishments under his leadership.

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The Great US Debt Downgrade

Dr. Justin Robinson, Head of Department & Lecturer in Management Studies,UWI,Cave Hill

On Friday August 5 2011, while most of Barbados was partying with Rihanna, there was a loud bang, and the financial world was shaken to the core with the news that major Credit Rating Agency, Standard & Poors (S&P) had downgraded the long term credit rating of the United States of America from AAA to AA+, and with a negative outlook. This momentous decision to downgrade the USA, justified or not, may well in my opinion, hasten a dramatic reduction in the role and influence of the CRAs in global financial markets, and the financial world will be much better for it.

CRAs are private profit oriented entities that issue an opinion on the likelihood a borrower will default on its debt. The opinion is issued in the form of a letter grade, with AAA being the highest rating. The industry is dominated by Moodys Investors Services and Standard & Poors, with Fitch running a distant third. Financial economists have long questioned the value added by the CRAs. To put it simply, many argue that in good times, rating agencies upgrade borrowers, and in bad times they downgrade them. Do you really need them to state the obvious? The CRAs were much maligned for assigning AAA ratings to now worthless subprime mortgage loans, and infamously rating Enron as “Investment Grade” in the same week the company filed for bankruptcy.

Much of the power of the CRAs seems to come from the fact that the credit opinions (ratings) they issue have been written into the law and contracts in many countries. For example, by law or contractual agreement many institutions are only allowed to invest in financial instruments carrying a certain credit rating by one of the major agencies. Also, in many instances, contracts require that financial instruments posted as collateral have a AAA rating. Financial Economists refer to this as the regulatory license granted to the CRAs. In essence to be a player in many financial markets you need the blessing of the CRAs. Due to this fact, attaining or losing a certain credit rating by one of the major agencies is a major issue for many investors and financial institutions. If these laws and contracts are enforced, then come Monday, a number of contracts would have been violated and investors may be forced to sell assets, find new collateral and so on. My guess is rather than face this massive inconvenience, or rather chaos, a number of clauses will either not be enforced or simply changed to allow institutions to continue to hold US government securities and use them as collateral for all kinds of financial contracts despite the downgrade. If this happens, the regulatory license, which has the source of the power of the CRAs would have been undermined and with it some of their influence.

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Weiss Ratings Downgrades United States Debt To C-Minus

Many are familiar with the big three credit rating agencies – Standards & Poor’s, Moody’s and Fitch – however for those who follow the global finance markets Weiss Rating Agency has developed a reputation for issuing accurate ratings. How credit rating agencies contributed to the global financial debacle is well documented – see Dr. Justin Robinson’s BU presentation. In comparison it is interesting to observe the track record which Weiss has developed.

Today (16 July 2011) Weiss made the financial news when it downgraded United States Debt to C-Minus, a bold move when the politics of global financial markets is considered. Regrettably this is not news to be found in the local media. The downgrade by Weiss given its spiffy track record; they have had twice the number of US Banks under watch than the Feds. While several banks have gone under that were not* on the Feds Watch List, not one has gone belly up that Weiss had neglected to signal caution, bear in mind our dollar is pegged to the US dollar. What should add to the concern for Barbados is the protracted debate by the US legislature concerning budget cuts and raising the debt ceiling.

Here is what Weiss had to say in its press release earlier today, the government of Barbados and Governor of the Central Bank particularly should take careful note:

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